Saturday 28 October 2017

In search of Roger Sacheverell Coke

Pianist Simon Callaghan talks about his journey to record the piano concertos by this undeservedly neglected British composer

Simon Callaghan, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra & Martin Brabbins recording Roger Sacheverell Coke's piano concertos (Photo Oscar Torres)
Simon Callaghan, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra & Martyn Brabbins recording Roger Sacheverell Coke's piano concertos (Photo Oscar Torres)
Having recorded the 'Preludes' by British composer Roger Sacheverell Coke, pianist Simon Callaghan has now recorded Coke's surviving piano concertos with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and Martyn Brabbins for Hyperion Records (released on 27 October). Here, in this article for Planet Hugill, Simon provides some background and talks about the journey of getting the concertos to disc.

My interest in the music of Roger Sacheverell Coke (1912-72) goes back to 2014 when I acquired the score of his 24 Preludes Op. 33 & 34 and was immediately gripped by the intriguing sound world of this forgotten composer. Siva Oke of SOMM Records shared my enthusiasm and together we produced the world premiere recording of the Preludes, along with Coke’s Theme and 15 Variations in C minor Op. 37. [See Robert's review of the disc]. It was also my pleasure to perform these works in the UK at the Husum Festival of Piano Rarities in Germany. In June 2016 I gave a lecture-recital on Coke at his family home, Brookhill Hall and joined the family in unveiling a blue plaque to commemorate the composer.

Through my early research into Coke I got to know about his piano concertos. These works were vehicles for the young Coke as a virtuoso pianist and he performed them all over the UK, including nationally broadcast concerts with the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra [forerunner of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra]. Despite the warm reception they received the composer destroyed the first two piano concertos. Coke’s own works list of 1959 details four more concertos although sadly the sixth and two of the movements from the fifth are now lost.

Simon Callaghan, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra & Martin Brabbins recording Roger Sacheverell Coke's piano concertos (Photo Oscar Torres)
Simon Callaghan, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (Photo Oscar Torres)
A further frustration came from the fact that although Coke published a two-piano score of the third concerto (which is readily available in most conservatoire libraries and occasionally appears online), no orchestral score seemed to be available. Thanks to some investigation by Gareth Vaughan and the generosity of Coke’s nephew Christopher Darwin, we finally found a photocopy of the orchestral score in among some other papers – the only surviving copy of the work!

From this score and those held at Chesterfield Library in Derbyshire, the wonderful Edward Taylor and I painstakingly transcribed the music and prepared new performing editions and sets of orchestral parts. Coke’s manuscripts are meticulous and highly detailed. These works clearly meant the world to him, so it was such a pleasure to be able to bring them to life in this way!

In July 2016 I travelled to Glasgow to join Martyn Brabbins and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra to put down the first recording of Coke’s third, fourth and fifth piano concertos. I must say that this orchestra and conductor are really the ‘dream team’ for this kind of project! They are so incredibly open-minded to this unknown music and showed total dedication and enthusiasm for making the best recording possible. I will always look back on those days of making music together with great fondness and I would like to thank them all for joining me in producing a CD we can all be very proud of.

Coke himself would also have been very pleased I think. In 1966 he made an appeal in the Sunday Express, for someone to record his third piano concerto, saying “I’ve thought of having it recorded for some time now. Then two years ago I approached a company who agreed – but unfortunately they went bankrupt…I am prepared to have to pay as I’m not well known enough for them to do it for nothing. I always have to pay for things – probably because I live in a hall.

Simon Callaghan, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra & Martin Brabbins recording Roger Sacheverell Coke's piano concertos (Photo Oscar Torres)
Simon Callaghan, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra & Martyn Brabbins
(Photo Oscar Torres)
For me, the concertos chart a development not only in Coke’s musical style but also in his personal life and emotional state. I have learned a lot of Coke as a person through my research, and it seems he led a solitary life in some ways, certainly spending lots of time alone and never really gaining the recognition he and many other felt he deserved. All this in spite of remaining totally dedicated to his craft for his whole life until his untimely death in 1972.

The third concerto is perhaps the most influenced by Sergei Rachmaninov whom Coke greatly admired and undoubtedly sought to assimilate in his own works. [See Simon's blog for more information on Coke and Rachmaninov]. It is a work firmly based in the Romantic tradition with a virtuosic piano part and a remarkably straight-forward orchestration. Early performances of all the concertos were given at Brookhill Hall with an orchestra of musicians assembled from the local area – possibly not professional musicians – which might explain the need to keep the orchestration simple.

In the three years between the third and fourth concertos, Coke’s mental afflictions worsened and he spent significant spells in mental asylums. I haven’t yet managed to track down a diagnosis but it is almost certain that he suffered from depression and this worsened during these years, also bringing about a complete change in his compositional style. The fourth concerto – while beginning in a similar Romantic vein to the third – goes much further, particularly harmonically and for me recalls the sound world of Alexander Scriabin and Arnold Bax. It is much less constrained by the reins of structure, alternating between episodes of strongly diatonic music and disturbed, mysterious outbursts.

The movement we recorded of the fifth concerto is the only remaining part of the work. Coke’s works list gives the timing as 30 minutes, implying that there were possibly two other movements, but these are now lost. It is also subtitled the ‘Orton’ concerto, although I haven’t been able to find out who or what ‘Orton’ was. For me the work again highlights the two sides of Coke’s personality, beginning with a very serene melody in the unison strings and a nocturne-like opening from the piano, but descending into a much more esoteric sound world at times. This music is the closest we can get to knowing how Coke was feeling at the time of writing it.

I do hope you enjoy our new recording of Coke’s three remaining piano concertos, and I would love to hear your comments! You can find out more and contact me at

Simon Callaghan

Simon Callaghan, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra & Martin Brabbins (Photo BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra)
Simon Callaghan, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra & Martyn Brabbins (Photo BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra)
Date for the diary: 12th June 2018, 7.30pm. St Paul’s Church, 32a Wilton Place, Knightsbridge, London SW1X 8SH. Jamie Campbell, Karel Bredenhorst and Simon Callaghan play trios by Rachmaninov, Coke and Schubert.

Simon Callaghan is a pianist and Director of Music at Conway Hall in London. He is currently working on his PhD on Roger Sacheverell Coke at the Royal Northern College of Music.

Roger Sacheverell Coke - Piano Concertos Nos. 3, 4, 5 - Simon Callaghan, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Hyperion Records (Available from Amazon)

Roger Sacheverell Coke -24 Preludes Op.33 & 34, 15 Variations & Finale, SOMM (Available from Amazon)

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